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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)

The Sleeping Venus

From “Crotchet Castle”

THE LIBRARY of Crotchet Castle was a large and well-furnished apartment, opening on one side into an ante-room, on the other into a music-room. It had several tables stationed at convenient distances; one consecrated to the novelties of literature, another to the novelties of embellishment; others unoccupied, and at the disposal of the company. The walls were covered with a copious collection of ancient and modern books; the ancient having been selected and arranged by the Reverend Doctor Folliott. In the ante-room were card-tables; in the music-room were various instruments, all popular operas, and all fashionable music. In this suite of apartments, and not in the drawing-room, were the evenings of Crotchet Castle usually passed.

The young ladies were in the music-room; Miss Crotchet at the piano, Lady Clarinda at the harp, playing and occasionally singing, at the suggestion of Mr. Trillo, portions of “Matilde di Shabran.” Lord Bossnowl was turning over the leaves for Miss Crotchet; the captain was performing the same office for Lady Clarinda, but with so much more attention to the lady than the book, that he often made sad work with the harmony, by turning over two leaves together. On these occasions Miss Crotchet paused, Lady Clarinda laughed, Mr. Trillo scolded, Lord Bossnowl yawned, the captain apologised, and the performance proceeded.

In the library Mr. Mac Quedy was expounding political economy to the Reverend Doctor Folliott, who was pro more demolishing its doctrines seriatim.

Mr. Chainmail was in hot dispute with Mr. Skionar, touching the physical and moral well-being of man. Mr. Skionar was enforcing his friend Mr. Shantsee’s views of moral discipline; maintaining that the sole thing needful for man in this world was loyal and pious education; the giving men good books to read, and enough of the hornbook to read them; with a judicious interspersion of the lessons of Old Restraint, which was his poetic name for the parish stocks. Mr. Chainmail, on the other hand, stood up for the exclusive necessity of beef and ale, lodging and raiment, wife and children, courage to fight for them all, and armour wherewith to do so.

Mr. Henbane had got his face scratched, and his finger bitten, by the cat, in trying to catch her for a second experiment in killing and bringing to life; and Doctor Morbific was comforting him with a disquisition, to prove that there were only four animals having the power to communicate hydrophobia, of which the cat was one; and that it was not necessary that the animal should be in a rabid state, the nature of the wound being everything, and the idea of contagion a delusion. Mr. Henbane was listening very lugubriously to this dissertation.

Mr. Philpot had seized on Mr. Firedamp, and pinned him down to a map of Africa, on which he was tracing imaginary courses of mighty inland rivers, terminating in lakes and marshes, where they were finally evaporated by the heat of the sun; and Mr. Firedamp’s hair was standing on end at the bare imagination of the mass of malaria that must be engendered by the operation. Mr. Toogood had begun explaining his diagrams to Sir Simon Steeltrap; but Sir Simon grew testy, and told Mr. Toogood that the promulgators of such doctrines ought to be consigned to the tread-mill. The philanthropist walked off from the country gentleman, and proceeded to hold forth to young Crotchet, who stood silent, as one who listens, but in reality without hearing a syllable. Mr. Crotchet, senior, as the master of the house, was left to entertain himself with his own meditations, till the Reverend Doctor Folliott tore himself from Mr. Mac Quedy, and proceeded to expostulate with Mr. Crotchet on a delicate topic.

There was an Italian painter, who obtained the name of Il Bragatore, by the superinduction of inexpressibles on the naked Apollos and Bacchuses of his betters. The fame of this worthy remained one and indivisible, till a set of heads, which had been, by a too common mistake of nature’s journeymen, stuck upon magisterial shoulders, as the Corinthian capitals of “fair round bellies with fat capon lined,” but which nature herself had intended for the noddles of porcelain mandarins, promulgated simultaneously from the east and the west of London, an order that no plaster-of-Paris Venus should appear in the streets without petticoats. Mr. Crotchet, on reading this order in the evening paper, which, by the postman’s early arrival, was always laid on his breakfast-table, determined to fill his house with Venuses of all sizes and kinds. In pursuance of this resolution, came packages by water-carriage, containing an infinite variety of Venuses. There were the Medicean Venus, and the Bathing Venus; the Uranian Venus, and the Pandemian Venus; the Crouching Venus, and the Sleeping Venus; the Venus rising from the sea, the Venus with the apple of Paris, and the Venus with the armour of Mars.

The Reverend Doctor Folliott had been very much astonished at this unexpected display. Disposed, as he was, to hold, that whatever had been in Greece was right; he was more than doubtful of the propriety of throwing open the classical adytum to the illiterate profane. Whether, in his interior mind, he was at all influenced, either by the consideration that it would be for the credit of his cloth, with some of his vice-suppressing neighbours, to be able to say that he had expostulated; or by curiosity, to try what sort of defence his city-bred friend, who knew the classics only by translations, and whose reason was always a little ahead of his knowledge, would make for his somewhat ostentatious display of liberality in matters of taste; is a question on which the learned may differ. But, after having duly deliberated on two full-sized casts of the Uranian and Pandemian Venus, in niches on each side of the chimney, and on three alabaster figures, in glass cases, on the mantelpiece, he proceeded, peirastically, to open his fire.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.These little alabaster figures on the mantelpiece, Mr. Crotchet, and those large figures in the niches—may I take the liberty to ask you what they are intended to represent?

Mr. Crotchet.Venus, sir; nothing more, sir; just Venus.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.May I ask you, sir, why they are there?

Mr. Crotchet.To be looked at, sir; just to be looked at: the reasons for most things in a gentleman’s house being in it at all; from the paper on the walls, and the drapery of the curtains, even to the books in the library, of which the most essential part is the appearance of the back.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Very true, sir. As great philosophers hold that the esse of things is percipi, so a gentleman’s furniture exists to be looked at. Nevertheless, sir, there are some things more fit to be looked at than others; for instance, there is nothing more fit to be looked at than the outside of a book. It is, as I may say, from repeated experience, a pure and unmixed pleasure to have a goodly volume lying before you, and to know that you may open it if you please, and need not open it unless you please. It is a resource against ennui, if ennui should come upon you. To have the resource and not to feel the ennui, to enjoy your bottle in the present, and your book in the indefinite future, is a delightful condition of human existence. There is no place, in which a man can move or sit, in which the outside of a book can be otherwise than an innocent and becoming spectacle. Touching this matter, there cannot, I think, be two opinions. But with respect to your Venuses there can be, and indeed there are, two very distinct opinions. Now, sir, that little figure in the centre of the mantelpiece—as a grave paterfamilias, Mr. Crotchet, with a fair nubile daughter, whose eyes are like the fish-pools of Heshbon—I would ask you if you hold that figure to be altogether delicate?

Mr. Crotchet.The Sleeping Venus, sir? Nothing can be more delicate than the entire contour of the figure, the flow of the hair on the shoulders and neck, the form of the feet and fingers. It is altogether a most delicate morsel.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Why, in that sense, perhaps, it is as delicate as whitebait in July. But the attitude, sir, the attitude.

Mr. Crotchet.Nothing can be more natural, sir.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.That is the very thing, sir. It is too natural, too natural, sir; it lies for all the world like —— I make no doubt, the pious cheesemonger, who recently broke its plaster fac-simile over the head of the itinerant vendor, was struck by a certain similitude to the position of his own sleeping beauty, and felt his noble wrath thereby justly aroused.

Mr. Crotchet.Very likely, sir. In my opinion, the cheesemonger was a fool, and the justice who sided with him was a greater.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Fool, sir, is a harsh term: call not thy brother a fool.

Mr. Crotchet.Sir, neither the cheesemonger nor the justice is a brother of mine.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Sir, we are all brethren.

Mr. Crotchet.Yes, sir, as the hangman is of the thief; the squire of the poacher; the judge of the libeller; the lawyer of his client; the statesman of his colleague; the bubble-blower of the bubble-buyer; the slave-driver of the negro; as these are brethren, so am I and the worthies in question.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.To be sure, sir, in these instances, and in many others, the term brother must be taken in its utmost latitude of interpretation: we are all brothers, nevertheless. But to return to the point. Now these two large figures, one with drapery on the lower half of the body, and the other with no drapery at all—upon my word, sir, it matters not what godfathers and godmothers may have promised and vowed for the children of this world, touching the devil and other things to be renounced, if such figures as those are to be put before their eyes.

Mr. Crotchet.Sir, the naked figure is the Pandemian Venus, and the half-draped figure is the Uranian Venus; and I say, sir, that figure realises the finest imaginings of Plato, and is the personification of the most refined and exalted feeling of which the human mind is susceptible: the love of pure, ideal, intellectual beauty.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.I am aware, sir, that Plato, in his Symposium, discourseth very eloquently touching the Uranian and Pandemian Venus. But you must remember that, in our universities, Plato is held to be little better than a misleader of youth; and they have shown their contempt for him, not only by never reading him—a mode of contempt in which they deal very largely—but even by never printing a complete edition of him, although they have printed many ancient books, which nobody suspects to have been ever read on the spot, except by a person attached to the press, who is, therefore, emphatically called “the reader.”

Mr. Crotchet.Well, sir?

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Why, sir, to “the reader” aforesaid—supposing either of our universities to have printed an edition of Plato—or to any one else who can be supposed to have read Plato, or, indeed, to be ever likely to do so, I would very willingly show these figures; because to such they would, I grant you, be the outward and visible signs of poetical and philosophical ideas. But to the multitude, the gross, carnal multitude, they are but two beautiful women, one half undressed, and the other quite so.

Mr. Crotchet.Then, sir, let the multitude look upon them and learn modesty.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.I must say that, if I wished my footman to learn modesty, I should not dream of sending him to school to a naked Venus.

Mr. Crotchet.Sir, ancient sculpture is the true school of modesty. But where the Greeks had modesty, we have cant; where they had poetry, we have cant; where they had patriotism, we have cant; where they had anything that exalts, delights, or adorns humanity, we have nothing but cant, cant, cant. And, sir, to show my contempt for cant in all its shapes, I have adorned my house with the Greek Venus, in all her shapes, and am ready to fight her battle against all the societies that ever were instituted for the suppression of truth and beauty.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.My dear sir, I am afraid you are growing warm. Pray be cool. Nothing contributes so much to good digestion as to be perfectly cool after dinner.

Mr. Crotchet.Sir, the Lacedemonian virgins wrestled naked with young men; and they grew up, as the wise Lycurgus had foreseen, into the most modest of women, and the most exemplary of wives and mothers.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Very likely, sir; but the Athenian virgins did no such thing, and they grew up into wives who stayed at home—stayed at home, sir; and looked after their husbands’ dinner—dinner, sir, you will please to observe.

Mr. Crotchet.And what was the consequence of that, sir? That they were such very insipid persons that the husband would not go home to eat his dinner, but preferred the company of some Aspasia, or Laïs.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Two very different persons, sir, give me leave to remark.

Mr. Crotchet.Very likely, sir, but both too good to be married in Athens.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Sir, Laïs was a Corinthian.

Mr. Crotchet.Od’s vengeance, sir, some Aspasia and any other Athenian name of the same sort of person you like——

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.I do not like the sort of person at all. The sort of person I like, as I have already implied, is a modest woman, who stays at home and looks after her husband’s dinner.

Mr. Crotchet.Well, sir, that was not the taste of the Athenians. They preferred the society of women who would not have made any scruple about sitting as models to Praxiteles, as you know, sir, very modest women in Italy did to Canova. One of them, an Italian countess, being asked by an English lady, “How she could bear it?” answered, “Very well; there was a good fire in the room.”

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Sir, the English lady should have asked how the Italian lady’s husband could bear it. The phials of my wrath would overflow if poor dear Mrs. Folliott—Sir, in return for your story, I will tell you a story of my ancestor, Gilbert Folliott. The devil haunted him, as he did Saint Francis, in the likeness of a beautiful damsel; but all he could get from the exemplary Gilbert was an admonition to wear a stomacher and longer petticoats.

Mr. Crotchet.Sir, your story makes for my side of the question. It proves that the devil, in the likeness of a fair damsel, with short petticoats and no stomacher, was almost too much for Gilbert Folliott. The force of the spell was in the drapery.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Bless my soul, sir!

Mr. Crotchet.Give me leave, sir. Diderot——

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Who was he, sir?

Mr. Crotchet.Who was he, sir? The sublime philosopher, the father of the Encyclopedia, of all the encyclopedias that have ever been printed.

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Bless me, sir, a terrible progeny: they belong to the tribe of Incubi.

Mr. Crotchet.The great philosopher, Diderot——

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Sir, Diderot is not a man after my heart. Keep to the Greeks, if you please; albeit this Sleeping Venus is not an antique.

Mr. Crotchet.Well, sir, the Greeks: why do we call the Elgin marbles inestimable? Simply because they are true to nature. And why are they so superior in that point to all modern works, with all our greater knowledge of anatomy? Why, sir, but because the Greeks, having no cant, had better opportunities of studying models?

The Rev. Dr. Folliott.Sir, I deny our greater knowledge of anatomy. But I shall take the liberty to employ, on this occasion, the argumentum ad hominem. Would you have allowed Miss Crotchet to sit for a model to Canova?

Mr. Crotchet.Yes, sir.

“God bless my soul, sir!” exclaimed the Reverend Doctor Folliott, throwing himself back into a chair, and flinging up his heels, with the premeditated design of giving emphasis to his exclamation. But by miscalculating his impetus, he overbalanced his chair, and laid himself on the carpet in a right angle, of which his back was the base.